Dragon myths are universal. Dragons themselves vary widely from one imagination to another. What do they show us about ourselves?
Our myths tell much about what we hold dear, and in the case of the great monsters, what we fear. The dragon is one of the most awe inspiring of those monsters, an archetype that reveals much about the one who imagines him. Let’s explore a few types of dragons, elements of the dragon story, that have appeared in various cultures over time.
The Water Serpent: The dragons of the far east are most often water spirits. Much is spoken of how the eastern dragon is revered as a creative force. This stems from being identified with water, the foundation of life. Westerners often surmise that this makes dragons not only revered, but “good” to Asian peoples. One of the marks of western culture is that we like to label elements of the world around us with “good” and “evil”. In the east this is not the case. The understanding there is that dragons are both lucky and deadly, that they are fearfully ambivalent. Anyone who has lived near the sea or experienced a swollen river, a terrific rainstorm or a drenching flood knows that water is able to take life as well as give it. So the water serpent is an unpredictable omen, a creature that signifies life and death and reveals a profound fear of overabundance, of drowning in plenty. They do not only appear in the far east. In Babylonian mythology, the watery dragon goddess Tiamat birthed the chaotic earth only to be killed by Marduk who brought order. The Aztecs of central America worshipped Quetzacoatl, a feathered serpent who created the world and made the boundary between earth and sky.
The Fire Drake: Fire is another unpredictable element, one that will kill and destroy if it is not controlled. Restraining a fire requires either appeasing the fire– a process of abandoning what is in its path and attempting to clear and create boundaries elsewhere– or extinguishing it. The former is a frustrating task, especially given the nature of fire, which jumps and flies on the wind. The latter requires a hero who will fight in the face of death. Whether the result of waiting out cold winters in ramshackle housing with unshielded flame for heat or of volcanoes that slumbered and erupted into life with no warning, the fear of fire itself was the origin of most western dragons, such as the one that finally slays the hero Beowulf as well as the cantankerous Smaug in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
The Dragon’s Hoard: Another attribute of Smaug and of Beowulf’s dragon was that they were hoarders, dragons that slept on jealously guarded piles of treasure. This was the addition of a later generation of westerners, trying to adding a moral to the senseless violence of the Fire Drake by making it a story about the dangers of greed. If the dragon is angry with you, you must have done something to make him angry. Unfortunately, it became a vehicle for punishing and scapegoating unfortunates that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Why should anyone feel sorry for you or help you if the disaster is your own fault?
A rather clever variant was the idea that sleeping on a dragon’s treasure could transform one into a dragon, further testament to the corrupting power of greed. Thus, the Norse giant Fafnir and the annoying Eustace of C.S. Lewis’s The Dawn Treader became dragons. Fafnir was a murdering, evil giant, in some legends guilty of the murder of his own brother, Fasolt, and the acquisition of the infamous cursed Ring of the Nibelung. His transformation was permanent. Eustace was granted mercy and became human again, though the experience had forever changed him, making a him a better human being and creating further play on the theme of transformation which has long been part of the dragon story.
The Flying Dragon: Humans have always been jealous of beings that can fly. Being able to scout from above, to see at a distance, is of great strategic worth. It has also imparted to dragons an uneasy sense of wisdom, of being able to see into the past and future, tempered with a lack of concern for the “unimportant”. Like a military general, they see the plan unfolding, the great design, but may overlook the individual soldier. Knowledge can be a dangerous thing that can remove our innocence and sensitivity even as it expands our horizons. Is this why dragons like Vermithrax Pejorative in Dragonslayer were saddled with the deaths of young maidens?
The Dragon as Companion: Myths have a way of evolving and yet returning to their roots. In the Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey, flying warriors bonded to dragons risk life and limb to save the planet Pern whenever the toxic spore called Thread rains down from outer space. The genius of this fabricated world is that it inverts so many of our western dragon myths. It is no longer the dragon attacking from above, but the dragon collaborating beside man to rid the world of a deadly threat. Does this signal a shift in how we perceive ourselves and our fears?
Map makers used to designate dangerous wilderness areas with the label, “Here be dragons”, which no doubt drew adventurers to those places. While there are no longer any lands so unknown or unmapped today, there are many parts of our world and of ourselves that we do not understand. Human life depends upon being able to use our creative powers to explore and restore our world. Can the dragon help us?
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